Old-country work ethic feeds iconic pizzeria
In an era of franchised pizza parlors on every corner, a family-owned, old-country gem prevails on Capitol Street. Graziano's Pizza, a cozy midtown icon since 1975, survived even the retail ravages of Charleston Town Center.
The man responsible for the restaurant's longevity is Joe Graziano, a quietly affable hands-on workaholic from Sicily. At 56, he puts in 14-hour days and vows to keep going as long as customers keep coming.
Amid the growing plethora of American-born pizza makers, the still discernible Sicilian accent sets him apart. Giuseppe Graziano arrived here at age 17 to visit two brothers and an uncle. He started working at the family pizzeria on Capitol Street and never looked back.
The accent isn't the only reflection of his Sicilian upbringing. Like most Italians, he loves soccer. For years, until his knees gave out, he played here on an unbeatable team with his brothers. A mirrored mural along one wall of the restaurant depicts the square in Sicily where he played soccer. Hanging nearby, a big Juventus flag salutes the Sicilian pro team.
The decor also features a giant photo of Marlon Brando in "The Godfather." So yes, this place is definitely the real deal.
"I lived in Carini, in Sicily. My daddy was a real estate guy. He used to have cows and animals that he would buy and sell, and things were kind of hard. Our house used to be a barn before he tore it down and built on it. When he turned to selling real estate, things changed for the better.
"I was better off than my brothers. They are older than me and were there in the post World War II era, so they felt a lot more of that than I did.
"My mother cooked, from making the bread and everything else. My brother Frank is the real cook in the family. We were always in the kitchen watching my mom cooking.
"Over there, we eat three times a day so you have to have a variety. They've got the siesta in the afternoon and everything closes. It's more laid back. They enjoy life more. Here, a business would never make it like that.
"My brother Frank came over here in the early '70s and then my brother Vito came. My uncle Sal was in New York, in Brooklyn, even before that. Frank started working in a bakery in Brooklyn. Vito worked construction.
"As pizza started booming, they decided to take a chance. They learned to make pizza from a friend who had a shop. So Frank and Vito and my uncle Sal started making pizza. Their first shop was in a shopping mall in Pennsylvania.
"The people who owned the mall opened one in Dunbar Village and asked if they wanted to move there. They said they would take a chance. So they moved to Dunbar and opened that shop in 1974.
"In 1975, I came over here for a summer vacation. Our generation was already rebellious, so to speak. We grew up with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, so I was ready for change.
"I came to see how things were. I came by plane. I was amazed by New York. It blew my mind. I hadn't seen big buildings like that.
"I was supposed to go back to finish school. I never went back, so it became a lifetime vacation. I liked it immediately. The people were friendly, so different than back home. I fell right in. I started working and making money here in this shop.
"Frank opened a store in Staten Island in '75. He wanted to stay close to his wife's family. Vito and Sal were running this one. The Staten Island store didn't work out, so Frank came back here.
"I did everything, the dough, the pizza and everything else. I couldn't do much talking because I didn't speak that well in the beginning. I still don't. They taught me everything I needed to know, and here I am.
"The pizza hasn't changed since we opened here in '75. We were the first ones to come over here and really do the New York-style pizza. It's the crust, and the oven we bake it in. It's a slab, not a conveyor oven like to you see nowadays. The stone in the oven gives it that texture in the dough.
"In the beginning, I used to dream I was working and I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking the pizza was burning.
"We opened several other stores. Some worked. Some didn't. When the mall came in, it ruined the downtown business for everybody, but you can't stop progress. At one point, we thought we were going to close this place because it got so bad. I opposed that. This store was good to us for so many years, I wanted to see it through. It worked out for the best because things got better and better. We have good food at a good price, and people keep on coming.
"I have a prebaked pizza that people take to Texas, Georgia, all the way to California.
"I'm a hands-on boss, a part of the fixtures here. I'm here at 8 and stay until 9 or 10, so it's a sacrifice life. But I enjoy it. I'm still back there cooking.
"My grandson, Noah (Jones), is here. My daughter, Jennifer, works with me and my son-in-law, Jamie Bradshaw, and my nephew, Philip. One son works here on and off. My other son, Giuseppe, is in Los Angeles. I told to stay out of the restaurant business because it is not the best life. One is enough in the family. He's a script writer and currently works for 'Growing Up Fisher' on NBC, and it's doing very well. One of these days, we may see him on the red carpet.
"Vito has retired to Florida and does a lot of fishing. Good for him. Frank is at the Graziano's in Teays Valley with his son.
"We have a strong lunch business and the rest of the day we prepare for the next day. Eighty percent of our business is lunch. From 11 to 1:30, this place is full.
"Our TV back there is always on soccer. I used to play soccer until my knees gave up on me. I started playing back home as a kid in the street in front of my house. We played for our town team. Everybody in Italy loves soccer. Soccer is in our blood like food is in our blood.
"I don't know how many shoes I tore up playing soccer in the square. I always played in whatever shoes I had on. I would put cardboard in them because I couldn't tell my dad I had torn up shoes I'd only had for one month.
"My brother Frank still plays in the Kanawha Valley Soccer League. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, we were champions, the unbeatables. Everybody would be mad at us. After I hurt my knee, I had to stop.
"I think I work too hard, but you get used to it. I don't have another trade, so I will stick with it. I wish I would have finished school. I was in the third year of high school when I came here. I was supposed to do that plus two more to finish.
"Maybe one of these days, when I am finished working so hard, I will do a little more traveling. Maybe I will help the community a little more. Right now, I just don't have time.
"One of the important things in my life was meeting my wife, the love of my life, Sandra. She has been very understanding to put up with me all these years.
"I'm happy with how things turned out. I love what I'm doing. I'm working with family members and get to spend time with them.
"I love this country. It's the greatest country in the world. I was proud to become a U.S. citizen in 2010.
"One of these days, I might write a book on my life. A lot of interesting people come in here and you hear their stories. We know four generations who have been coming in here. I came in that door at 17. When I walk out, who knows how old I will be?
"A long as my body holds up for me, I will still feed the people who come in every day."